Could you take an email vacation…at work?

Going email free on weekends is a time management best practice. Every guru seems to agree that you should misplace the iPhone or Blackberry on Friday night, and check it only once or twice for emergencies before Sunday evening. That way you can feel relaxed without feeling tethered to work.

But here’s a twist on this practice: could you go email free at work?

That’s the recommendation coming out of a new study from researchers at the University of California at Irvine and the U.S. Army. After observing a group of civilian employees at one of the Army’s sites near Boston, they then had some go without email for 5 days. That’s 5 working days, by the way.

The result? The no-email group reported being better able to do their jobs and stay on task. And the data backed them up. Co-workers who could check email switched screens on their computers 37 times an hour. Those who were on email vacations switched only 18 times an hour. They also felt less stressed, which the researchers found a bit surprising. After all, email is often necessary to our jobs, and not having access to it would feel like working with a hand tied behind your back. But apparently, that hand enjoyed being tied there.

The researchers talked about ways companies could manage email checking, like controlling log in times or batching message delivery. This seems a wee bit extreme, but I sympathize. We often forget that, for most of us, email is not our job. It is a tool to do our jobs, and it has a tendency to get out of control. Inboxes are a bit like slot machines, with rewards (a useful or fun email) coming often enough that we keep hitting refresh in a compulsive manner.

I’m trying to keep my weekday email checking under control by scheduling my days more tightly — putting big projects on my schedule at certain times, rather than just putting them on the day’s to-do list. Knowing I’m supposed to be working on a column from 9:30-10:30 does seem to keep me focused. I also close the browser window with my inbox, and turn off my iPhone. Resisting temptation is tough — but worth it.

Could you go email free during the workday?

7 thoughts on “Could you take an email vacation…at work?

  1. Clearly these were not engineers in an integrated circuit fab. You could have millions of dollars in unnecessary scrap by not checking email for 5 days because we set up our systems to notify us by e-mail.

    I like the emphasis on being able to focus on other things, though. I, and many other people, hooked our “urgent” voicemail to our cell phones so we’d be notified by a new message. People only left them “urgent” if there was a bad problem. It was better to know than not know so you could plan the rest of your life around having to be at work.

  2. Hmm, that sounds nice but would never work in my tech company as EVERYTHING is driven by email – last minute meeting invites, all our voicemail is directed to email, and people use it instead of IM or phone for all sorts of things.

    I definitely turn off the “new mail” notifications, and minimize it when I’m working on a document, but I couldn’t get away with checking it only once a day or less.

    I think in certain companies/cultures it could work, but definitely not ours.

  3. Seems like a good idea to me.. I’m going to try it tomorrow.. just check like 2 or 3 x during the day but only for 1/2 hour each … then spend the rest of the day on the phone

  4. While it’s an attractive idea, I think what would happen to me without email would be worse. I’d just have constant in-person and phone interruptions and would be able to get even less done at the computer.

    That would change the nature of my job (assuming I didn’t get fired because I didn’t get done what I was hired to do), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing from my point of view. But since *someone* has to do the work I am doing, my taking an email break would just shift the dilemma (and the email burden) to that someone.

  5. I just checked my email 3 times while reading this…so yeah…probably should institute some sort of restrictions on myself.

  6. Given the project management aspect of my job… no, I don’t take email vacations while I work. That would literally be counterproductive.

    Now, if my job were to write code… I’d take email breaks. Different jobs=different work styles needed, I think.

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